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SOFIA, Bulgaria — In Europe’s most affordable capital, a night in a four-star hotel goes for less than $100. The dinner tab for two with a bottle of house wine runs about $40. And cab fare costs less than $1 a mile.

The city ranks tops on several travel affordability indexes, including TripAdvisor’s TripIndex Cities 2013, which tallied daily expenses at $158.42. That’s 73% cheaper than in Oslo, the priciest destination, where the per diem came to $581.

The city is full of delightful surprises, from the yellow brick roads in its historic center to the partially exposed, 1,800-year-old Roman city that lies beneath. You can enjoy a 60-minute Bulgarian rose massage in the ruins of a 3rd-century coliseum for about $55, or take in an outdoor opera performance for less than $10. There’s hiking and skiing on 7,500-foot Vitosha Mountain, the highest of the peaks surrounding the capital. Within the city are dozens of lovely parks, where on any given day you might happen across tango dancers perfecting their moves or old men contemplating a chess board.

On one of two daily Free Sofia Tours, the mostly twenty- and thirtysomething participants hail from a dozen countries. The tours, led by English-speaking students, take in the compact downtown’s major sites. We walk along the twice-baked clay cobblestones that give the streets their yellow hue and peer into unearthed remnants of the Roman city of Serdica, circa 300 A.D. (Emperor Constantine called the city “my Rome.”) More ruins are visible in the city’s new and efficient subway system.

An excellent new museum beneath the 6th-century Church of Saint Sofia showcases tombs dating from 2 B.C. to the 5th century that were discovered by workers repairing pipes. And a decade ago during excavation for a new hotel, an amphitheater only slightly smaller than Rome’s coliseum, was discovered. Hotel construction continued, though plans were modified to incorporate parts of the ancient arena where gladiators once faced off against wild beasts. Today, guests at the Arena di Serdica Hotel get gentler treatment in the hotel’s spa that abuts the arena’s stone walls.

But the city’s most striking architectural landmark is the magnificent Alexander Nefsky Cathedral. Boyanin and I arrive at the end of Sunday services to the sound of Gregorian chants performed by Orthodox priests. Its cavernous fresco-adorned interior can accommodate 10,000 worshippers and the 12 bells in its tower are still rung by hand.

Like many of Sofia’s most significant structures, the cathedral, completed in 1912, is young by European standards. Despite its centuries-old roots, Sofia didn’t become a capital until 1879, a year after the Russians liberated the country from 500 years of Ottoman rule. The oldest buildings, a mix of stately Viennese, neo-Renaissance and other grand styles, date to the late 1800s. Unattractive prefabricated apartment blocks from the post World War II Soviet era rise from the city’s farther reaches.

The city supports a lively arts scene. Rakovski Street, Sofia’s Broadway, is lined with theaters. Jazz is huge. So are dance clubs, where a mix of Serbian and Turkish pop/rap called chalga — and widely disdained by the intelligentsia — attracts young nouveau riche.

On a Saturday night, the scene is just revving up when Boyanin and I pop into Sin City, one of Sofia’s cavernous nightclubs featuring late-night chalga performances. Dancers showing lots of skin gyrate on backlit platforms. The clientele lounges at tables with bottle service. The scene is in sharp contrast to a prior stop at an unassuming bar, where youthful patrons were polishing their Bulgarian folkdance moves.

Earlier, we’d dined at Pod Lipite, a popular eatery that serves specialties like wild boar with plums. and nettles with cheese. Bulgarian meals invariably start with shopska salad — tomatoes and cucumbers topped with grated feta cheese. The pace is leisurely. It can be hours before people get around to ordering a main course, Boyanin notes.

JAYNE CLARK, U. T.
Is Europe’s most affordable capital worth the trip?
In-text: (Jayne Clark, 2015)
Bibliography: Jayne Clark, U. (2015). Is Europe’s most affordable capital worth the trip?. [online] Usatoday.com. Available at: http://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/destinations/2013/08/29/sofia-bulgaria-cheap/2730089/ [Accessed 6 Jan. 2015].

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